The Accuracy of George Orwell's Predictions and What They Hold for Our Future
When, in 1949, George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four, the world had just witnessed one of the most trying and tumultuous periods in all of human history. In the space of only thirty-five years, there had been two world wars, a communist revolution, a host of fascist dictators, and a frenzy of slaughter such as had never been seen before in all the bloodstained annals of mankind. The old order was dead - the changes irrevocable.
Gone was the world empire into a corner of which George Orwell had been born. Gone were all the old empires, and all the ancient dynasties, and with them the social patterns and accretions of centuries. Contending philosophies replaced the sure doctrines of former days, strange new technologies transformed the physical patterns of human existence, and the entire globe was split into two mutually antagonistic armed camps. Communism battled democracy. The State fought the individual. And all humanity waged a war upon nature. In reviewing all these changes and looking forward to the future, Orwell imagined a world yet darker than that which already existed, a world in which the voice of authority had triumphed absolutely, and in which individual human needs and desires were no more. It was humankind's destiny. It was Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It is no surprise that George Orwell should imagine a world in which the State has taken complete control of every aspect of the individual and of society, for such a thing had already happened, albeit not so completely. Clearly, the Soviet Union was the chief model for Orwell's Oceania. In the years since the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communist Party, and in particular, Joseph Stalin, had created a world that could be considered a prototype of that described in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the Soviet Union, the entire old order had been overturned, weeded out and replaced by a form of government and society that had never really existed before in any time or place. Through a combination of terror, intimidation, and "re-education," Stalin and his thugs substituted the Communist Party for the old Tsarist autocracy. The once powerful Russian Orthodox Church was replaced by Marxist and Stalinist dogma. Private property passed into control of the State. A permanent state of war was created, first in the form of the never-ending war against the counterrevolutionaries at home, and secondly against the enemies of Communism and Stalinism abroad.
The central feature of Oceanian society is the cult of Big Brother. Big Brother is a curiously Stalin-like figure whose face is seen everywhere - in posters, on buildings, and of course on the telescreen. Stalin too, had himself depicted in every possible place. This served two purposes: the first being to create the impression that Stalin, or Big Brother, or whomever the leader might be, was continually watching all that was going on. Secondly, it also created a false association of the leader with all activities. Stalin, or Big Brother, became in effect the author of all activities, inventions, ideas, and so forth; a kind of superman or "god." Indeed, in time, this god would understood to be even more real than the heavenly God in which the people had once believed. Few people claim ever to have actually seen God, but in Orwell's world, as in Stalin's, everyone could claim to have seen his likeness. Orwell believed that this cult of the personality was absolutely essential to the success of the authoritarian state. Each of the totalitarian nightmares that had existed in his time had been dominated by a single man, a single man who, like Stalin, had made himself an object of worship. The Fuhrer, the Duce, Franco, and Stalin, all elevated themselves to quasi-divine status. In fact, the use of an impersonal title by both Hitler and Mussolini accorded very nicely with the whole concept of absolute, unquestioned authority. In both Germany and Italy, man and position were fused, the ultimate plan being the perpetuation of one-man rule through a single office, regardless of the human identity of the officeholder. Of course, this had been attempted many times in the past. Medieval thinkers divided the king's person into two distinct bodies: the king's own human body, and his "body politic." This is the origin of the "royal we." However, the king always had the misfortune of being subject to an actual god or gods. Even the Egyptian pharaoh, though a god himself, was but one of many gods.
As well, Stalin's government represented the closest approximation to a modern state in which all power was vested in a single individual or office. Historically, many leaders had claimed such powers, but without the benefit of modern communication and transportation it had been virtually impossible for one man to invade the private lives of each and every one of his subjects. Telephone, radio, and electronic listening devices, or bugs, did it for Stalin, and telescreens and microphones for Big Brother. Even in old China where the Emperor was head of state, sole legislator, chief executive, and high priest (as well as being the subject of a cult himself), his more remote subjects were largely free to control their own affairs. In all of the two thousand years of history of Imperial China, there was not a single year without a rebellion somewhere in the vast empire. In one of his own essays, Orwell demonstrated how it was possible for a monarch to function as a break upon authoritarianism:
The function of the King in promoting stability and acting as a sort of keystone in a non-democratic society is, of course, obvious. But he also has, or can have, the function of acting as an escape-valve for dangerous emotions. A French journalist said to me once that the monarchy was one of the things that have saved Britain from Fascism. What he meant was that modern people can't, apparently, get along without drums, flags and loyalty parades, and that it is better that they should tie their leader-worship onto some figure who has no real power. In a dictatorship the power and the glory belong to the same person. In England the real power belongs to unprepossessing men in bowler hats: the creature who rides in a gilded coach behind soldiers in steel breast-plates is really a waxwork. It is at any rate possible that while this division of function exists a Hitler or a Stalin cannot come to power. On the whole the European countries which have most successfully avoided Fascism have been constitutional monarchies. The conditions seemingly are that the Royal Family shall be long-established and taken for granted, shall understand its own position and shall not produce strong characters with political ambitions. These have been fulfilled in Britain, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, but not in, say, Spain or Rumania. If you point these facts out to the average left-winger he gets very angry, but only because he has not examined the nature of his own feelings towards Stalin. I do not defend the institution of monarchy in an absolute sense, but I think that in an age like our own it may have an inoculating effect, and certainly it does far less harm than the existence of our so-called aristocracy. I have often advocated that a Labour government, i.e. one that meant business, would abolish titles while retaining the Royal Family."
Yet in the above passage, Orwell also raises another interesting point, and one it is pertinent to his concept of Oceania. His allusion to the idea that a constitutional monarchy helps to stave off fascism is a tacit admission of the fact that "it could happen here," in other words, that even democratic Britain, is not immune to the forces that produce totalitarianism. In the contemporary relationship between Stalin and the West, Orwell also recognized another of the signs of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Stalin not only fostered a sense of continual war within his own country - the ongoing revolution - but his occupation of Eastern Europe provoked an antagonistic response from the West. The United States and its allies, Britain included, were staging their own "war" against communism. By 1949, the Cold War was already in full swing and Great Britain with her American air bases and monetary aid from the Marshall Plan was a full partner in the war to contain Stalin. For his part, Stalin had effectively cordoned off half of Europe and was proceeding to do the same with the Allied portion of Berlin. An anti-communist stance became the litmus test of true loyalty throughout the United States, Britain, and many of its allies. The formation of NATO was only one more step in the grand game of military cat-and-mouse and the burgeoning arms raise. A state of perpetual warfare was essential to the authoritarian state. In creating and perpetuating such a condition, it whipped its citizens to action, and bound them together in single cause.…